NFL Anthem Policy Shows What Little Regard It Has for Its Black Players

Master TesfatsionFeatured Columnist IMay 25, 2018

ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 15: Eli Harold #58, Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest on the sideline, during the anthem,  prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on October 16, 2016 in Orchard Park, New York. The Bills defeated the 49ers 45-16. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Michael Zagaris/Getty

The NFL had nearly two years to find a solution, 21 months to do the right thing, 635 days to recalibrate its moral compass and show its black athletes and black fans that the biggest sport in America gets it.

The NFL may say it gets why Colin Kaepernick used his platform on Aug. 26, 2016, to publicly speak out on police brutality and how it affects black people. The league may say it gets how racial inequality doesn't discriminate based on a person's material or financial possessions but only on the color of one's skin. The shield may say it gets how institutional racism marginalizes its own players and fans on a daily basis.

But the NFL doesn't get it.

We were reminded of this once again Wednesday when the NFL announced its new national anthem policy. When measured against the NBA's response to police brutality on that same day, it's never been more painstakingly clear how these two leagues view black athletes.

One cares when it's beneficial. The other cares like a human being should.

The NFL somehow tried to find "middle ground" on a social issue. Commissioner Roger Goodell, without input from the NFL Players Association or reportedly a formal vote from the owners, decided to force players to stand on the field for the national anthem or remain in the locker room. Teams and players are subject to fines if they decide to demonstrate, a gesture that Kaepernick started by sitting during the anthem during the 2016 preseason to protest police brutality and racial inequality.

Later on Wednesday afternoon, Milwaukee police released a 30-minute body camera video of the arrest and tasing of Bucks guard Sterling Brown on January 26. The footage shows Brown being confronted by an officer for a parking violation outside of a Walgreens. It escalated when the officer called for backup. Several other police vehicles pulled up to the scene and police eventually brought Brown down to the ground. They tased and arrested him despite his calm demeanor.

The Bucks had the courage to do what nobody in the NFL has yet to definitively say. They condemned not just Brown's encounter but also police brutality as a whole in a statement.

"Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated case," the Bucks said. "It shouldn't require an incident involving a professional athlete to draw attention to the fact that vulnerable people in our communities have experienced similar, and even worse, treatment."

They took a defiant stance, in a city where 39.2 percent of the population is black, per the U.S. Census Bureau, by not describing it as an isolated incident and acknowledging the systemic issue. The Bucks chose to stand with Brown, stand with their fans and stand with their city by using their platform and influence to shine light on an issue that has resulted in unarmed black people dying at the hands of police.

Sound familiar? This is what Kaepernick wanted to do.

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Even as the expectations have been lowered to the most elementary form of respect, a simple acknowledgment of right and wrong, the NFL continues to show it is no better at standing up for equality than the Browns are at winning a football game, no better than Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman is at throwing passes against the Chargers defense, and no better than the Saints defense is at holding a lead in the playoffs with 10 seconds left.

In the process of trying to be fair to both sides on the subject of inequality, the NFL has consistently shown that it does not care about its black athletes, its black fans or humanity in general. It only aims to please the one person with more power than the shield—Trump.

"I don't think people should be staying in the locker room, but still it's good," President Donald Trump told Fox News about the NFL's anthem policy. "You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, or you shouldn't be playing. You shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country."

This has never been about whether a player sits, or kneels, or raises his fist during the anthem, but the NFL and Trump have dragged this debate to the point where the initial message has been lost. People are now commenting on the similarities between the NFL and NBA anthem policies, which both require the players to stand, while ignoring the fact that the NBA allows its owners, coaches and players to freely express themselves while the NFL muzzles its employees.

In 2014, superstars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant wore "I Can't Breathe" shirts, the final words said by Eric Garner as he was choked to death by an arresting police officer. James has continued to use his platform to speak out on social injustice.

Kaepernick was not signed by a team last season—in a year which starting quarterbacks were plagued with injuries—and has filed a grievance against the NFL for collusion.

Just two months ago, as protesters marched in Sacramento following the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, by police, Kings owner Vivek Ranadive addressed the home crowd before a game and expressed his condolences to Clark's family. He described the shooting as a "horrific, horrific tragedy."

Eric Reid, who joined alongside Kaepernick's protest in San Francisco by kneeling during the anthem over the last two seasons, remains unsigned. Reid has also filed a collusion grievance.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 22:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors talks to the media after the game against the Houston Rockets in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 22, 2018 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOT
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Before Game 5 of the NBA's Western Conference Finals on Thursday, Golden State coach Steve Kerr candidly expressed his opinion on the NFL's anthem policy.

"I think it's just typical of the NFL," Kerr told reporters. "They're just playing off their fanbase, and they're just basically trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism, scaring people. It's idiotic, but that's how the NFL has handled their business. And I'm proud to be in a league that understands patriotism in America is about free speech and about peacefully protesting. I think our leaders in the NBA understand that when an NFL player is kneeling, they were kneeling to protest police brutality, to protest racial inequality. They weren't disrespecting the flag or the military, but our president decided to make it about that, and the NFL followed suit and pandered to their fanbase by creating this hysteria."

In the NFL, Kerr's comments would be considered a distraction to his team attempting to win a championship. In the NBA, they're not.

Kerr gets that racial inequality doesn't have a middle ground. Ranadive gets why black lives matter. The Bucks get how police brutality impacts their community.

The NFL doesn't get it. It never has, and Wednesday was a reminder that it never will.

Master Tesfatsion is a senior writer for B/R Mag. He was previously a Washington football beat writer at the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @MasterTes.